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5 Space Shuttles September 9, 2015

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in 5 Things, Space Exploration.
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This week officially launches our series of 5. Last week, we outlined our plan.




Columbia was the Space Shuttle program’s first functional orbiter. It launched on April 12, 1981, and flew for 22 years and 27 missions. This first shuttle was thousands of pounds heavier than the others. It flew a lot of science-oriented missions, and its last completed mission was to service the Hubble Space Telescope. On February 1, 2003, Columbia broke apart on re-entry. You can read one of our posts that commemorates that accident, along with the Apollo 1 and Challenger accidents, HERE.


Challenger‘s maiden flight was in April of 1983, and it’s last, fatal launch occurred on January 28, 1986. You can read more of what we’ve written about Challenger at Lofty Ambitions HERE.



First launched in 1984, Discovery is the first fully functional space shuttle we saw in person and up close. This orbiter can now be seen at the Udvar-Hazy Center of the National Air and Space Museum. In this photo, Anna helps with mating process in preparation for Discovery to fly from Florida to DC after its final orbital mission.



First launched in 1985, Atlantis concluded the Space Shuttle program with its final flight in 2011. We were there to see this shuttle on the launchpad and see the program’s final launch. This shuttle can now be viewed in person at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, where we saw it installed in 2012.



We think of Endeavour as our shuttle, for it was the first orbiter we saw launch in person, and we followed its journey to our backyard at the California Science Center in 2012. Endeavour was the only replacement shuttle and the last shuttle to be built; it was commissioned after the Challenger accident and made from spare parts. It flew 25 missions between 1992 and 2011.


Bonus: Enterprise

Enterprise was never designed to go to space, but we give it a lot of credit as a test vehicle. And who doesn’t like a space vehicle that gets (re)named by Star Trek fans? Anna saw this (non)orbiter when Udvar-Hazy first opened, and it’s now on display at the Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Complex in New York.


On the Anniversary of the Last Shuttle Launch July 8, 2015

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On July 8, 2011, the space shuttle Atlantis lifted off from Kennedy Space Center. And we were there. No U.S. manned spaceflight has occurred since.

If you’d like to see our photos from launch day, click HERE. Yes, we included photos of John Oliver and Anderson Cooper, too.

Atlantis was moved to the Visitor Complex at Kennedy Space Center on November 2, 2012. And we were there. The shuttle is now on permanent display there.

One of the people we met while we were following the end of the shuttle program was Margaret Lazarus Dean. She, too, was there for the last launch and for Atlantis’s museum installation. In her new book, Leaving Orbit: Notes from the Last Days of American Spaceflight, she writes, “Of all the orbiters, Atlantis was the one I could never quite get a handle on, the one that never really developed a personality for me, and so maybe it’s fitting that it should be the last, that it should be the one I should have to say good-bye to.”

AnnaDougAtlantisWe feel similarly about Atlantis, the newest and somehow least distinct shuttle. We cannot separate our attachment to Challenger and Columbia from the fatal accidents, those shuttles going to pieces. Discovery was the first shuttle we saw up-close and personal; the trip to see Discovery’s not-launch in 2010 changed our lives. Endeavour was our shuttle, the one we’d seen land in California only months after we’d moved there in 2008 and the one we followed most closely through not-launch, launch, and across the country and through Los Angeles streets to the California Science Center. Not being as attached to Atlantis may well have made that last launch easier for us and more easily thought of as emblematic of the shuttle program.

Press Briefing: Atlantis Launch

Press Briefing: Atlantis Launch

Waiting in the press briefing room after that last launch, Anna leaned over to Doug and whispered that she would start clapping when NASA’s launch managers walked in. She didn’t care that we were supposed to be objective journalists. We wanted the mainstream press, who’d shown up for the first time that morning, to see those of us who followed the end of the shuttle and the even smaller group who covered launches for years display a deep understanding of the story. We wanted the managers to know that those of us who weren’t insiders understood that the space program mattered and that individuals made it happen. We knew that, if we started clapping, it would catch on. This press core had just witnessed an event that moved them physically and emotionally. All they needed was a nudge. So when we started the applause, it rightly felt as if everyone had been overwhelmed with awe and gratitude at once. A standing ovation seemed an inevitable, spontaneous response to the moment.

AtlantisCloseUpAwe comes from words meaning terror, dread, grief, and depression. The current sense of awe connects the concept with the divine, but the word has not shed the shadow of those early meanings nor that depth of feeling. That the shuttle could inspire awe in the two of us and, undoubtedly, in anyone who witnessed a launch in person is a testament to ambition and desire, even when it falls short. We should be overwhelmed with awe and gratitude more often. These occasions are rare indeed.

Anniversary of First American Spacewalk and more June 3, 2015

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Fifty years ago on this date, two astronauts crawled into a Gemini spacecraft atop a Titan rocket and were shot into space. Over four days, Jim McDivitt and Ed White circled Earth 66 times. That first day, White opened the hatch and left the spacecraft.

This first spacewalk lasted about 20 minutes. White, connected to the capsule by a tether, wanted to stay out in that great expanse a lot longer. He exclaimed, “This is fun!” He didn’t seem to care that communications with the ground might be compromised as they switched tracking stations, nor that they were heading into darkness of night on the other side of the solar terminator. Ed White called his return to Gemini IV “the saddest moment of my life.”

Anna & Gene Cernan!

Anna & Gene Cernan!

One year later, on June 3, 1966, two different astronauts crawled into a Gemini spacecraft atop a Titan rocket and were shot into space. Over three days, Tom Stafford and Gene Cernan circled Earth 47 times. On June 5, Cernan left the spacecraft for two hours.

All in all, Gemini IX was a meager success. The planned rendezvous with the Agena, an unmanned target practice spacecraft, didn’t happen because of a problem with the Agena that left its nose cone pieces hanging open, still attached. Then, Cernan struggled through his spacewalk, with no hand or foot folds to help him make his way to the maneuvering system he had to put on. All his movements were exhausting, his heart rate soared to 180 beats per minute, and he started sweating profusely, which fogged his visor, which he couldn’t wipe off to see. Stafford called a halt to the spacewalk, and NASA started rethinking the spacesuit for the Apollo program.

The original crew for Gemini IX had been Elliot See and Charles Bassett, but they had died that February when their T-38 crashed on approach to St. Louis to take a look at their spacecraft in person. McDivitt and Cernan moved from backup to prime crew.


Buzz Aldrin

Jim Lovell and Buzz Aldrin became the new backup crew for Gemini IX, which also moved them to the prime crew position on Gemini XII. This switch likely changed Aldrin’s life. While Cernan had struggled physically as a spacewalker on Gemini IX, Aldrin used underwater training to prepare for his spacewalks. Aldrin completed three spacewalks on Gemini XII in November 1966, two of which lasted more than two hours. Only then was NASA convinced that extravehicular activity was safe and doable. The crew rotation and this EVA success set Aldrin up to be on Apollo 11 and to walk on the Moon.

This rotation also put Tom Stafford and Gene Cernan on the Apollo 10 crew, along with John Young. All three had flown before, and all three would fly to space again after Apollo 10.

Roughly 46 years ago, at the end of May 1969, three men crawled into an Apollo spacecraft atop at Saturn V rocket and were shot into space. Apollo 10 went all the way to the Moon without actually landing on its surface. The Lunar Module came within 16 kilometers of the surface but wasn’t given enough fuel to land and ascend back to the Command Module, probably because NASA feared Stafford and Cernan would try such a move. The success of Apollo 10 set up the Apollo 11 mission to land on the Moon in July 1969.


Jim Lovell

History is made in the moment. As we’ve written before (Mark & Scott Kelly HERE, Shuttle Firsts HERE), timing and sequence matter in space exploration history. Sequences of small decisions accumulate to give us the whole. Certainly, the deaths of Bassett and See altered the trajectory of both the Gemini and Apollo programs in small ways. But it isn’t always tragic events that have effects. Mike Collins’s back problems likely put him in the Command Module pilot’s seat as opposed to another astronaut. In the larger scheme of things, we’ve also written about how all the Apollo astronauts, our Moon men, were born into a thin slice of history. Collins, Aldrin, and Neil Armstrong were all born in the same year, 1930.

The Gemini IV spacecraft is on display at the National Air and Space Museum. The Gemini IX spacecraft is on display at Kennedy Space Center. The Apollo 10 Command Module is at the Science Museum in London.

Happy First Flight, Endeavour! May 6, 2015

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EndeavourKissWe’ve come to think of Endeavour as “our” shuttle. We went to Edwards Air Force Base to see it land in 2008, we watched its last launch from Kennedy Space Center in 2011, and we saw it make its cross-country trip back home to California, where it is now displayed at the California Science Center. We spent time with Endeavour up close and personal after its last flight, when it was being decommissioned and we were at KSC to see Atlantis’s last launch. We know Endeavour best, and tomorrow is its anniversary of first flight.

Endeavour-sts-49-launchOn May 7, 1992, the space shuttle Endeavour launched for the first time. At the end of this post, we’ve included a video of the launch and landing from this first flight. STS-49 was commanded by Daniel C. Brandenstein and carried six other crew members on this mission to rescue Intelsat 603 and send it into its intended orbit.

We talked with one of those astronauts, Kathryn Thornton, in 2010. After earning a PhD in physics, she joined NASA when we were in college. Thornton flew on the space shuttle four times, and Endeavour’s first was her second spaceflight. During STS-49, she was one of four spacewalkers. Of course, in addition to the satellite tasks, the crew tested Endeavour out to make sure everything was in tip-top shape for the long haul of its service.

You can see our interview with Kathy Thornton HERE.

Endeavour_sts-49-crew-smEndeavour was the space shuttle built to replace Challenger, after the demise of that orbiter during launch in 1986. This new shuttle, then, was made from leftover parts from the process of making earlier shuttles. The British spelling was in honor of the sailing ship Captain James Cook used to track the path of Venus and was also used for the Command Module on Apollo 15. The name was chosen through a K-12 essay contest in which Endeavour was a favorite and met the NASA requirement of relatively easy pronunciation.

That first Endeavour mission was also the first shuttle mission with an EVA—a spacewalk—that included three astronauts. The Intelsat rescue was more difficult than anticipated, and the mission was the first to require three rendezvous with another orbiting spacecraft. The landing was the first during which the shuttle used a drag chute.

Later that year, Endeavour carried Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman in space. The following year, Endeavour flew the first Hubble Space Telescope service mission; Thornton performed two EVAs as part of the Hubble repairs.

To see the series of posts that include our cool launch photos, click HERE.

To see the series of posts about Endeavour’s journey home, click HERE.

RIP Leonard Nimoy March 4, 2015

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Last Friday, actor Leonard Nimoy died. The New York Times reported, “the sonorous, gaunt-faced actor who won a worshipful global following as Mr. Spock, the resolutely logical human-alien first officer of the Starship Enterprise in the television and movie juggernaut ‘Star Trek,’ died on Friday morning at his home in the Bel Air section of Los Angeles. He was 83.”

As Anna drove around town that morning, KUSC played the Star Trek theme in Nimoy’s honor, for he was a long-time supporter of that classical music station and a musician himself. Long before Peter Jackson brought J. R. R. Tolkein’s hobbits to the screen, Nimoy performed “The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins.” though that didn’t do justice to his talent. He was also a photographer, and The Independent has just pulled together and shared some of his striking work.

Four years ago this month, Lofty Ambitions wrote a happy-birthday post for Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner. Read that tribute HERE.

Reportedly, Nimoy’s last tweet was “A life is like a garden. Perfect moments can be had, but not preserved, except in memory.”

One of our favorite and nerdiest NASA astronauts Mike Fincke and ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano spoke of Nimoy’s influence, as the character Spock, on space exploration, science, and their generation. And astronauts in space exchanged the Vulcan salute last week.

Rolling Stone gathered numerous tributes. President Obama wrote, “Long before being nerdy was cool, there was Leonard Nimoy. Leonard was a lifelong lover of the arts and humanities, a supporter of the sciences, generous with his talent and his time. And of course, Leonard was Spock. Cool, logical, big-eared and level-headed, the center of Star Trek‘s optimistic, inclusive vision of humanity’s future.”

Zachary Quinto, the new Spock, wrote, “My heart is broken. I love you profoundly my dear friend.”


Star Trek cast and crew with Enterprise Space Shuttle

George Takei remembered Nimoy at MSNBC. Takei called Nimoy “extraordinary” and explains why Nimoy deserves that adjective.

William Shatner kept his commitment to a Red Cross fundraiser in Florida instead of attending the funeral, according to CNN, but had good things to say about Nimoy.

In TIME, Martin Landau remembered Nimoy, writing, “Leonard Nimoy was a mensch! Mensch is a word which in Yiddish means ‘a particularly good person’ with the qualities one would hope for in a dear friend or trusted colleague.”

Canadians are Spocking their $5 bills. The Bank of Canada is not pleased. Fans will be fans, always.

As academics ourselves, we appreciate a good commencement speech. In his at Boston University in 2012, at the age of 81, Nimoy said, “I have three words for you. Persistence, persistence…persistence.” We write about that here at Lofty Ambitions, and Anna’s chapter in a forthcoming pedagogy book talks about the importance of perseverance. In that speech, Nimoy quotes President Kennedy, “We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda. It is truth.” That’s sometimes difficult to remember these days, but it’s one of the principles that drives our own writing here and elsewhere. So we end with Nimoy’s wisdom and a video clip that may be familiar and newly meaningful:

You are the curators of your own lives.

You create your own life and work.

#Orion at JPL/Armstrong (Part 3) December 10, 2014

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To start with Part 1, click HERE.

Orion Flight Test Profile (NASA)

Orion Flight Test Profile (NASA)

The Orion/EFT-1 mission went off without a hitch last Friday. The four-and-a-half hour mission reached a height, or apogee, of 3,600 miles. That’s is as far as a human-rated spacecraft has travelled from the earth in forty-two years.

As a part of the build-up to the Orion/EFT-1 mission, NASA held NASA Social events at multiple sites. Doug was lucky enough to be selected for the event held at Jet Propulsion Laboratory and cosponsored with Armstrong Flight Research Center. In last week’s post, we described the enthusiastic presentation by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and Director of Kennedy Space Center Bob Cabana.

The morning session, a streaming broadcast from Kennedy Space Center, continued with panels that addressed a range of Orion-related topics. Mars was much on people’s minds, and many echoed the point that Orion is a stepping-stone to the missions that will send humans to Mars. Dr. Michael Gazarik, who serves as Associate Administrator of the Space Technology Mission Directorate, neatly summed up the Mars aspect of the morning’s presentations when he said that we have to learn: “How to get there. How to land there. How to live there.”

Charlie Bolden & Bob Cabana Livestream

Charlie Bolden & Bob Cabana Livestream

Another interesting moment in the morning’s session occurred when Phil McAlister, NASA’s director of Commercial Spaceflight Development, discussed the requirements process for the Commercial Crew Program. McAlister used the space shuttle program as a comparison point. For the shuttle, NASA developed 12,000 requirements. For the Commerical Crew Program, NASA issued 300 requirements. As McAlister put it, with significant but significantly fewer constraints, corporations have encouragement to innovate.

After lunch, the Armstrong/JPL NASA Social continued with more talks and a tour of several locations at JPL.

One of the significant new systems which was developed for Orion is its Launch Abort System. Brent Cobleigh of NASA Armstrong described the testing of the Launch Abort System that took place during the Pad Abort-1 flight test program. That PAD-1 program took place at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. The 500,000 pounds of thrust generated by the solid rocket motors of the Launch Abort System are powerful enough to accelerate the Orion spacecraft to one hundred miles an hour in 0.42 seconds. The earliest setup for this system produced 16Gs of acceleration, and the production version of the system will accelerate at 12Gs in order to reduce the physiological stresses on the occupants. Cobleigh also pointed out that the United States has never used an abort system during a launch. In fact, only once in the history of human space exploration has a launch abort system been used, in September 1983 for the Russian Soyuz T-10a mission.

Doug at JPL (NASA photo)

Doug at JPL (NASA photo)

The next presentation was by pilot Mark Pestana about the Ikhana aircraft from NASA Armstrong. Ikhana is an unmanned aircraft system that NASA uses primarily for Earth observation and science missions. The name Ikhana comes from the Choctaw language and means intelligence, learning, awareness, and consciousness. NASA received permission from the Choctaw nation to give the aircraft this name. Ikhana was responsible for the stunning video images of Orion’s return through Earth’s atmosphere (see below). During the talk, it was revealed that the Ikhana’s flight would be available on Flightaware. You can still find the track of Ikhana’s flight in support of the Orion return HERE.

Despite the resounding success of the Orion/EFT-1 mission, it will be nearly four years before the next Orion test mission—Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1)—takes place on September 30, 2018. NASA is currently operating its human space exploration program—actually, all of its programs—under significant budget constraints. The first mission to include a human crew won’t occur until 2021, at the earliest. That flight will take place fully 60 years after Russian Yuri Gagarin became the first human being in space. It will have been more than 50 years since the crew of Apollo 11 landed on this moon, and, this time, we won’t even be landing there.

All signs are that humanity is going to Mars. But it’s going to take us a while to get there.

To read Part 4, click HERE.

On Traveling: NASM & Other Serendipity August 13, 2014

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Last week, we were back at the University of Maryland. We lived in College Park, Maryland, in the early 1990s while Anna was earning her MFA and working at the Entomological Society of America and Doug was working for NASA at the Center for AeroSpace Information as an abstractor and indexer. The University of Maryland and the surrounding communities have changed in twenty years, with lots more housing and restaurants (we went to Ledo first).

This time around, Doug was participating in a workshop hosted by HILT, or Humanities Intensive Learning and Teaching. As part of that program, we had the opportunity to choose among several Wednesday field trips. Of course, you know which one we chose: National Air and Space Museum!

NASM Curator Margaret W

NASM Curator Margaret Weitekamp at “My Shuttle Memories” Slideshow

The special event focused on a behind-the-scenes look at the new NASM crowdsourcing project called “My Space Shuttle Memories.” Margaret Weitekamp, the Curator of the Social and Cultural Dimensions of Spaceflight Collection at NASM, wanted something engaging for the new “Moving Beyond Earth” exhibit, and she wanted to reflect the ways in which real people interacted with and reacted to the space shuttle program. She worked with Sarah Banks, NASM’s Social Media Manager, to develop a photo crowdsourcing project that culminates in a slideshow display now in the exhibit.

Model of International Space Station in Current Configuration

Model of International Space Station in Current Configuration

We were disappointed that we hadn’t known about the initial call for photographs, but the museum plans to update the slideshow periodically. So, of course, we uploaded five of our own space shuttle photographs to the “My Space Shuttle Memories” Flickr group as soon as we returned home. We encourage others to do the same!

Based on our discussions with Weitekamp and Banks, we encourage you to follow the guidelines so that your photograph is seriously considered. Even if your photograph doesn’t become part of the slideshow in the museum, it’ll remain part of the collection of “My Shuttle Memories” at Flickr. Here are some things to consider before you upload any Shuttle photos to the Flickr page:

  • The photograph MUST include people. Photographs of the space shuttle or of the plume won’t be considered for inclusion in the museum slideshow.
  • The photograph must NOT anyone under the age of 18, unless you can provide permission from a parent or legal guardian for all children in the photograph.
  • Photographs should focus on space shuttle launches and landings. Generally, very insider photographs won’t be seriously considered for inclusion in the slideshow.
  • Photographs of space shuttle launches in the 1980s and 1990s are especially welcome. Many of us went to the last three launches with digital cameras, so those photographs dominate submissions. If you take the time to scan and submit an older photograph, you may have better odds.
  • You MUST hold copyright on the photograph and be willing to give NASM permission to use the photograph. If they’re interested in including your photograph in the slideshow, they’ll contact you about that process. (In fact, after you submit photos, you should check the email account associated with your Flickr registration at least every ten days.) Copyright holders of selected photographs may also contribute those images to the NASM Archives, but that’s a different, follow-on process.

NASM is open until 7:30pm over the summer, so we also had plenty of time to traipse about one of our favorites spaces in the world. In addition to the new “Moving Beyond Earth” exhibit, we took a look at “Sprit and Opportunity: 10 Years Roving Across Mars,” which runs through September 15, and the new-to-us “Time and Navigation.” We couldn’t leave without breezing through “Apollo to the Moon.”

Doug & Anna on Mars!

Doug & Anna on Mars!

Sated with our visit to NASM, we headed home from our cross-country jaunt on Saturday. We returned our rental car, boarded the shuttle bus back to the airport, and heard the doors whoosh shut on our journey. But wait! As we peered out the bus’s window, we saw a spry, white-haired man exit the rental car facility and head behind to the next bus.

We had missed meeting Gene Cernan, the last man to walk on the Moon! Or did we?

We never use curbside check-in, but there was no one in line, and that vantage allowed us to watch for the next bus from the rental car facility. We didn’t see Gene Cernan get off the bus, but Doug headed one way and I headed the other to check the adjacent terminal stops.

There he was!

Apollo 17 Astronaut Gene Cernan, waiting in line to check in for his flight just like everybody else. 

We approached. Doug said, “Mr. Cernan.” His daughter nudged him in our direction. “Could we take your photograph?” Doug asked. We thought he might be bothered, feel interrupted

Anna & Gene Cernan!

Anna & Gene Cernan!

Instead, he came right over to the rope, grabbed Anna’s hand, and said, “How about two?” Cernan and Anna chatted briefly about their flying plans that day, and Anna thanked him for going to the Moon for all of us. When he showed up in the security area, Anna wished him a good flight just before he entered the body scanner.

We’ve written about serendipity before here at Lofty Ambitions. Meeting Gene Cernan was indeed a happy accident. But it happened because we recognized someone who matters to us and were willing to take a little risk to seek out his company for a couple of minutes. As we continue to focus on The Cold War, cancer, and space exploration over this next year, we know we have to look for the unanticipated. Gene Cernan reminded us of that need both for immersion in our interests and for openness to what we can’t possibly predict will happen.

Interview: Eileen Collins July 30, 2014

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Anna with Eileen Collins, first-ever female commander of an American spacecraft

Anna with Eileen Collins, first-ever female commander of an American spacecraft

Fifteen years ago, on July 23, 1999, Eileen Collins became the first female commander of a U.S. spacecraft. STS-93 launched the Chandra X-Ray Observatory. Collins and her crew returned to Earth on July 29. This week, we celebrate that accomplishment.

Also this week, Lofty Ambitions celebrates Collins’s command on STS-114, which launched on July 26, 2005, and landed that August 9. Collins was circling the globe on this date just nine years ago. That was a Return-To-Flight mission in which she flew the first-ever 360-degree maneuver so that the orbiter could be photographed by the crew aboard the International Space Station and be checked for possible damage to the tiles on its underside.

Collins had already become the first female Shuttle pilot aboard STS-63 in 1995 and repeated her pilot role on STS-84 two years later. That’s right—a four-time Shuttle astronaut.

 We talked to Eileen Collins in 2012, and we’re excited to share the video of our conversation for the first time this week. Collins is one of the most gracious, vibrant, and diplomatic astronauts we’ve met.

Lofty Ambitions Anniversary: 4 Years! July 2, 2014

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It was an unusually busy spring for the Lofty Duo. Doug was the conference coordinator for Intertwingled: The Work and Influence of Ted Nelson, and Anna took on a new book project while still trying to work on her book about the history of the space program. Our transition into a summer schedule was abrupt, and it’s caused us some reflection.

Two Shuttles, Two Bloggers

Two Shuttles, Two Bloggers

One of the things that we just realized is that this week marks the fourth anniversary of Lofty Ambitions. We actually wrote a prologue post on June 30, 2010, to map out our basic plan for Lofty Ambitions. In that post, we announced that the blog would begin formally on July 1, 2010—so it did.

If you look at the blog’s tag cloud on the right-hand side of the page, you’ll see that Beer appears as one of the most common tags in our blog, so we’ll be tipping a pint tonight with Anna’s sister, Brigid, and their Aunt Maggie in celebration of four years of consistent publication.


One of the primary reasons that we started this blog, besides our mutual love of aviation and writing, was to document the end of the Space Shuttle program. Many years ago, after we’d done some academic writing about aviation museums, we talked about collaborating on a book that would highlight three aircraft from different eras of the twentieth century. We’d missed out on any opportunities to be connected to the first two aircraft by virtue of our mid-1960’s births. But the shuttle was the last of those three aircraft. Yes, we know that the shuttle is also a spacecraft, but it looks the way it does and landed the way it did because, underneath it all, it’s an airplane. In 2010, we wanted to get close to it before it was gone.


Endeavour on its way to California with Two Bloggers

We got closer that we ever could have hoped. This blog and our university magazine helped us garner press credentials to witness two of the last three shuttle launches, and we documented those experience through this blog, magazine articles, and newspaper stories. By putting our experiences out in front of the world, we also inadvertently became people that you could contact when you had a question about NASA or the shuttle. We both agree that the things of which we are most proud are the questions that we’ve answered and the connections we’ve made because people have read the blog and wanted to know more. Along the way, we’ve answered questions about the height of astronauts, helped two fifth-graders win first place in a statewide history contest, and been told by the astronauts who were there that we got the facts right.


In the last four years, we’ve managed to post every single Wednesday. We’ve come right up against the deadline on a few occasions, but we’ve managed to get something out every week. Our blog stats reveal that this is our 421st post. If you’re quick with the arithmetic, you’ll realize that’s significantly more posts than four years worth of Wednesdays. Often when we go to a big event—like a rocket launch—we publish every day that we’re on site.


Two Bloggers at the Launch Pad with Atlantis

We also use a rough average of a thousand words per post. A little more arithmetic will tell you that that comes to 421,000 words (more or less).

One of the missions of the blog is to discuss writing-as-a-couple. We are happy to report that being responsible together for producing a blog post every Wednesday has been great for us in terms of our writing and our coupledom. We’ve thoroughly enjoyed the ability to collaborate and engage with each other as writers.


In the past year, we’ve recorded a number of our activities as multi-post series. LaunchPad is a wonderful opportunity for writers to learn more science, specifically astronomy & cosmology. A Writing Residency details the two separate stays we had at Dorland Mountain Arts Colony; we plan to get back there again in this next year. Palomar Observatory & George Hale is an extensive look at the life of George Ellery Hale and one of the observatories that he built; we’re trying to figure out how to visit another of his visions soon. And JPL & EarthNow is one of the wonderful NASASocial programs that we were selected to attend. We’ve also written about losing friends to cancer, and Anna’s new book project has something to do with that.


AWP 2012: Lofty Ambitions bundled up in Chicago

Last year’s posts, both those that are a part of a series and those that stand alone, have served to remind us of how many things are going on in the areas of interest to Lofty Ambitions: Aviation and Space Exploration, Science, and Writing as a Couple.

The vagaries of our schedules and rocket launches are such that we haven’t been to a launch in this past year, though we’ve happily watched blog posts, Facebook status updates, and tweets as a number of the friends that we’ve made via this blog have been to launches. We meant to go to the SpaceX-3 Commercial Resupply Services flight launch, but it was delayed in March (when we could go) and wound up be launched in April (when we couldn’t go). We’ve both agreed that we need to go see a launch in the near future, and we’re keeping our eyes on the two SpaceX Falcon Heavy launches planned for 2015.

As always, we continue to be grateful that we’re able to write about the things that we love to do, about which we want to learn more. At the same time, we’re always on the lookout for new challenges, new opportunities. It’s been a wonderful four years, and we are already planning for the next four. Keep reading!

Celebrating Skylab May 14, 2014

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On this date in 1973, when we were in elementary school, NASA launched a space station called Skylab from Kennedy Space Center.

If that sentence sounds familiar, it’s because one very much like it also began our post on this date two years ago. A lofty ambition from NASA, Skylab looms large in our memory of childhood, and we continue to celebrate it.

Skylab (Artist's Concept, NASA)

Skylab (Artist’s Concept, NASA)

Sure, Skylab needed some in-space repair to get it running properly after its meteoroid shield had ripped away and left the workshop in the sizzling heat of the sun’s rays. Sure, this space station came zipping and burning back to Earth, with a few chunks landing here and there. Sure, it’s an example of poor timing, with the space shuttle not yet flying and nothing else able to nudge Skylab back up to its orbit. NASA has a detailed history of Skylab posted online that doesn’t ignore the glitches.

Skylab was America’s first space station, our nation’s first foray into living in space for extended periods of time, so we celebrate today both the general concept that now includes the International Space Station and the specific accomplishments of the three Skylab missions.

Perhaps the greatest contribution that Skylab made to science was via the Apollo Telescope Mount, or ATM. This solar observatory maintained and operated by the Skylab crew reshaped the study of the Sun. The ATM pioneered the field of heliophysics by studying “coronal mass ejections and coronal holes as the source of solar wind.” Along with space probes Explorer I and Mariner 2, Skylab’s ATM observations “led to the understanding that stars interact with the universe not just through gravity and photon radiation but also through electromagnetic fields and particles.”

Pete Conrad undergoes dental exam by Joseph Kerwin aboard Skylab (NASA)

Pete Conrad undergoes dental exam by Joseph Kerwin aboard Skylab (NASA)

We’re thinking today about its more human accomplishments rather than, say, the contribution to understanding solar flares. Skylab, for instance, forced NASA to grapple with its policy of open communication. The world heard the conversations between Houston and astronauts in space, which was especially good public relations during Apollo and Skylab because it distinguished our space program from that of the Soviet Union, who, as the PR had it, kept secrets even from its own people. That said, NASA protects the doctor-patient privacy we have in the United States even when astronauts travel beyond the atmosphere. On Skylab, NASA allowed the astronauts to talk privately with the flight surgeon, and that information was merely summarized for the news media.

But when Pete Conrad, who didn’t like the open communications policy anyway, had trouble with the exercise bicycle, he requested the sort of private conversation about operations that was supposed to occur only in an emergency. After that non-emergency conversation that covered several topics and after the explaining NASA had to do to the press, private conversations were avoided. Conrad later claimed that he found out about a planned spacewalk in a phone call with his wife instead of from the folks running the mission on the ground because NASA didn’t want to reveal evolving mission plans to the press.

Owen Garriott EVA (NASA)

Owen Garriott EVA (NASA)

This working through of how to talk about what over open channels and over the long haul couldn’t be solved with technology alone. Real people had to work through the complexity of human communication. People had to learn from human behaviors, tendencies, and missteps. Though this space station involved all sorts of technological accomplishments, some of Skylab’s most interesting and important accomplishments involved human interactions, human thinking, and the human body.

How much should a person exercise in space? How should the crew’s fluctuating heart rates be factored into mission plans for tomorrow or next week? Would decreased ability to taste and smell food mean stocking more German potato salad on future missions?

"Homemade" Christmas Tree aboard Skylab-4

“Homemade” Christmas Tree aboard Skylab-4

If half the astronauts will suffer space sickness, but half won’t, what’s the best prevention and treatment? The first Skylab crew of three fared fine, but all three astronauts on the second crew were queasy within hours. Jack Lousma, Alan Bean, and Owen Garriott—all of whom are still alive and, we hope, celebrating today—couldn’t eat much and became slower in their work. Between space sickness and troubleshooting unexpected glitches, they fell a day behind schedule quickly. This turn of events was especially perplexing because Bean had flown on Apollo without suffering space sickness, and Lousma performed well in the tests designed to induce motion sickness during training. The physician recommended rapid head movement instead of bunk rest, which wasn’t what the crew wanted to hear. By the third day, each astronaut felt better, whether or not he’d done the head movements. Skylab made solving the space sickness problem a priority for NASA. If half or an entire space shuttle crew were to be sick for three days, the mission would be a mess.

Skylab Food Tray (NASA)

Skylab Food Tray (NASA)

Roughly halfway through the third manned Skylab mission, Gerald Carr sent an extra message—via the delayed but public-after-transcription B channel—indicating that the crew and the ground needed to talk about the pace and goals of the mission. The second crew had set the bar high, despite their initial queasiness. This third, all-rookie spaceflight crew felt pushed to get tasks checked off quickly rather than completed well, and they wanted more exercise and down time. On this twelve-week mission—what would be a world record for space endurance—the astronauts wanted a bit of time before sleep to clear their heads, whereas the ground had been scheduling every minute and wanted to maintain the crew at the ready for any scientific observation opportunity that might arise. Because all but emergency operations communications were public, neither the crew nor the ground had wanted to point out even each other’s minor shortcomings. They hadn’t made sure they were on the same page, day to day. The almost-hour-long, candid discussion that followed Carr’s request set a new precedent between crew and ground for missions to come.

The greatest accomplishment of Skylab is that it suggested more questions than it answered, questions about science, technology, and human beings. Skylab wasn’t designed as an end in itself but as part of the future into which we were growing up in the 1970s. Maybe we’re a bit sentimental about Skylab because, when we were kids, Skylab made living in space seem not only cool—maybe cooler than it actually was with space sickness and to-do lists—but also possible.


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